For all her accomplishments in business, if there wasn’t that one line on her resume — college basketball player — does Cathy Engelbert think she would be the new WNBA commissioner?
“Very important," Engelbert said of that line.
The line almost didn’t exist. Engelbert said she didn’t find out until after college that she almost had been cut from the team at Lehigh as a freshman. She was a walk-on out of South Jersey, Collingswood High, recruited to Lehigh to play lacrosse. The women’s basketball coach was brand new, hadn’t recruited any of the freshmen.
The new coach, Muffet McGraw — long before McGraw became a legend in the sport — wasn’t sure about the walk-on, but she eventually changed her mind and kept her.
“I had no clue," Engelbert said about that until McGraw later told her. “I ended up being captain [as a senior] and East Coast Conference tournament MVP.”
All that may pale next to more recent accomplishments. An accountant by training, Engelbert eventually became the first female CEO of a Big Four accounting firm. However, that job at Deloitte comes with a term limit, so Engelbert knew she’d be looking for something else this year. She just didn’t expect it to take her back to a sport she never completely left behind.
“People who walked in my corporate office would crack up that I became WNBA commissioner," Engelbert said last week, the week before she officially takes over her new job. “I had basketballs all over.”
Signed basketballs, including one by Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski after she spoke at a graduation there, and another by Allen Iverson, after she ran into him in the lobby of a hotel at a pharmaceutical conference she spoke at.
Her own hoops bona fides go much further back.
“I just remember a trophy room," Engelbert said, explaining that her late father wasn’t a big talker about his glory days. But the trophy room told the story, how 6-foot-5 Kurt Engelbert had been the leading St. Joseph’s scorer and rebounder in the first two years of the Big 5, playing for Jack Ramsay.
In the very first Big 5 game, on Dec. 14, 1955, Engelbert scored 14 points and was the leading rebounder with 14, in a victory over Villanova.
Not bad for 6-foot-5.
“He was a center," his daughter said. “He’d be a point guard today.”
That’s what she ended up being in college at 5-foot-9.
“I was one of eight," Engelbert said, five boys and three girls. “Five ended up going to Villanova, which crushed my mom and dad.”
Her parents were from Northeast Philadelphia. Dad went to Lincoln, Mom to Little Flower. “All eight children were born at Nazareth Hospital," Engelbert said. “Does that still exist?”
The Villanova-St. Joe’s game became an annual family event.
“Half will chant, ‘The Hawk will never die,’ ‘’ Engelbert said. “Half will chant, ‘The Hawk is dead.’ ‘’
Engelbert has an older sister, but she arrived directly after three older brothers. Not hard to picture her upbringing.
“We had a halfcourt in the backyard, a rim over the garage," Engelbert said. “We wore out the nets. We’d play Wiffle ball, street hockey, everything. My brothers painted a free-throw line. We were all three-sport athletes.”
Curfew was 9 p.m. out there, dad the enforcer so they didn’t drive the neighbors crazy. Her mom, she said, tended to be the more competitive parent — “She drove us to sports, to practice. Not only physically, but mentally she drove us, to keep going.”
Dad got there, too. Cathy doesn’t remember her father missing a Lehigh home game. Of course, she had no idea the new coach who showed up from St. Joe’s, where McGraw had been an assistant, would one day reach the heights of the sport, winning multiple NCAA titles at Notre Dame. Engelbert did know the young coach meant business.
“You must be your best in ordinary moments, was one of her big things," Engelbert said, recalling how Lehigh lost only four games her senior year, and she can remember so many details of the losses, more than many of the wins.
“She rode us hard after those four," Engelbert said.
Only recently, she said, did Engelbert get a chance to see a video of her 1986 ECC title game against Delaware, watching it with her son. A shooting guard at Collingswood High, sharing a backcourt with her own younger sister, Engelbert eventually became the point guard at Lehigh.
“Mom, you’re directing everyone on the court, just like now," Engelbert said her son noted. “My son had never seen me play.”
She does believe point guard skills carried over after college. She had set a team record for steals, she said, which she is sure has been broken many times since.
“An interesting analogy to business," Engelbert said. “Feeling and anticipating where the ball is going next. In business, seeing the next shift, being out ahead of it, seeing where the trends are going.”
A website that covers the accounting industry, goingconcern.com, recently noted that Glassdoor released its 2019 ranking of the top 100 CEOs in the United States based on anonymous employee reviews. Engelbert was ranked 15th, the website adding, “the highest among the Big 4 CEOs and the second highest among women chief executives.”
Passion for the game
So if she left her former industry on a high note, she didn’t anticipate this latest fit. Engelbert will be the first to have the title of WNBA commissioner.
“I’d always dreamed of being at ESPN, working in sports in some way," Engelbert said. “That dream [seemed] done.”
She believes the WNBA has been ahead of the curve in so many areas, on and off the court. She talks of the “coolness factor” of the league, “these amazing elite athletes who have strong social awareness.”
Her job, as she sees it, includes adding to the fan base — “more fans in the seats, driving the fan experience, the player experience. More sponsorships.”
Her appointment comes at a crucial juncture, as growth is needed to keep top players in the fold when so many make more money overseas and then fit the WNBA into practically a year-round playing experience.
If the new boss has such deep Philly roots, when is Philly going to get a franchise?
“I’m focused on the 12 existing franchises, making sure we have the economics right," Engelbert said. She added that that her hometown is such a strong basketball town that if there is a potential expansion list, “Philly is on the list, as are several other cities.”
There’s a lengthy to-do list as Engelbert officially gets started this week.
“I think for the whole ecosystem, with the players, the owners, the fans, it’s helpful to have a leader who played the game," Engelbert said. “More important, a passion for the game. They were looking for a business leader who had a passion for the game.”